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Witnesses say Tu-154M was spinning before fatal crash

Very hazardous weather reported just before aircraft plummeted to ground, killing 171

Witnesses to the last few seconds of a Pulkovo Aviation Tupolev Tu-154M flight say the aircraft was spinning before it crashed, killing all 171 on board. Wreckage from the 22 August crash covers an area roughly 400m (1,300ft) square in fields 50km (30 miles) north of Donetsk, Ukraine, with no sign of a deep crater that would indicate a high-speed dive at impact.

Aviation experts quoted in the Russian press say mobile phone photos show the aircraft in a flat spin just before impact. Ukraine's meteorological office describes the weather in the area at the time as "very hazardous" frontal with vigorous embedded storm clouds extending vertically 40,000ft-50,000ft (12,000m-15,000m).

© Empics / PhotoMig

Wreckage from the crash covered a compact area, indicating low speed impact

The flight, with 11 crew and 160 passengers on board, departed from Anapa on Russia's Black Sea coast just after 15:00 and was heading north, bound for St Petersburg. About 30min into the flight the aircraft approached the storm area at 38,000ft, according to air traffic control (ATC). At 15:37 the crew transmitted a mayday call reporting severe turbulence, and 2min later, according to ATC, the aircraft was lost from radar screens. Unconfirmed reports suggest that, just before this, the aircraft had requested a change of heading to avoid weather.

There is reported to have been a second emergency call from the aircraft as it descended through about 10,000ft. Deputy head of the Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK) Oleg Yermolov says a lightning strike was unlikely to have structurally damaged the aircraft, but points out that it could have damaged its avionics.

The Tu-154 (RA-85185) entered service in 1991. Russian and Ukrainian authorities say they have ruled out sabotage as a cause of the crash.

Trijet has spun before 

The Pulkovo accident is the sixth Tu-154 fatal crash since 2000, but three of the previous five were not attributable to the aircraft or crew: one was shot down by a missile in 2001 another suffered a mid-air collision over southern Germany in 2002, and a third was blown up in flight by a suicide bomber in 2004. In 2002 an Iranian Tu-154 suffered controlled flight into high terrain during descent, but in 2001 there was a loss of control accident when the co-pilot of a Vladivostokavia Tu-154 on approach to Irkutsk, Siberia, allowed the aircraft get into a stall. It hit the ground in a flat spin, according to the investigators' report.

The Pulkovo accident is the third fatal airline crash in the CIS this year, and the second involving a Russian carrier. On 9 July, an S7 Airbus A310-300 overran the runway at Irkutsk on landing, hit buildings and burst into flames, killing 124 of the 203 people on board. On 3 May an A320 of Armenian carrier Armavia crashed, killing all 113 people on board when it abandoned a bad weather night approach to Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea coast, and crashed into the sea during what was supposed to be a climbing turn. The investigators say the aircraft had no technical faults.

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